An enormous orange compendium, The Endless City approaches architecture itself in scale, scope and design. All of the little details are right, from its visually comfortable grid to the stunning panoramic long-exposure photos of cities and urban sprawl. The result of a joint project between The London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society, the book contains so much data, information and statistics that some facts even needed to spill some over onto the cover. Despite the imposing cover, the information and opinions within prove not only to educate but also to inspire.
Before discussing any book on urban planning, it's worth first addressing the elephant in the room, and her name is Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs stands as a triumph of urban planning literature. By criticizing the architecture establishment and deriding the work of Robert Moses in reshaping New York, Jacobs entrenched herself into the urban planning cannon. Jacobs' work is small, accessible, and heartfelt. Anyone who has ever walked through an empty park, or pondered why portions of cities that governments push toward growth often fall into disarray would be well served examining her work. The Death and Life of Great American Cities reads as a cautionary tale for anyone hoping to adopt Le Corbusier's towers and parks as a mode for urban planning (as though walking past any project in America wouldn't be enough). Jacobs speaks lovingly about the diversity of the city streets, the need for a heterogeneous population and a "neighborhood" actively engaged in monitoring or policing its own behavior and growth. Walking down the quirky and vibrant streets of lower Manhattan, I can't help but feel that any other thesis would be tragically misguided. Consequently, I remained concerned until reading this book that urban planners might still hold some megalomaniacal tendencies. I was proven wrong only part way into the introduction and I still had a lot more to learn.
In an early essay, Ricky Burdett discusses three groups that influence the growth of cities: theorists, policy makers, and transportation engineers. Burdett sees the transportation engineers as the most important component, which should suit Jacobs' supporters quite nicely. Jacobs viewed the streets and the roadways as the glue that binds neighborhoods together, and Burdett seems to agree. Cities, so the thesis goes, are simply too complex to be guided by one hand. Instead, early zoning decisions determine the actions that developers will take, and guide the growth of the city with the same precision as one of Will Wright's simulations. Burdett uses the growth of London's financial district as an example. The combination of a tube (subway) extension with tax abatements for the Canary Wharf was enough to nudge developers to build office towers in the area, and the now the area is thriving.
With this organic view of city planning in hand, the authors then tackle a variety of macro trends. Striking colorful graphics display the growth of air traffic corridors over time. Bubble maps demonstrate the growth of megalopolises, and statistics of unfathomable scope (3.3 billion people live in urban areas, 1 in 6 people live in a slum!) support the academic writing and analysis that sandwich the graphs and charts. I simply can't do justice for the number of insights that stuff the pages.
The authors compartmentalized the work, and it can be read essay by essay across days if desired. I will admit that I followed this path, reading the introduction all the way through the first city, New York (in which I happen to live), and then skipping to the essays at the end. The essays proved so compelling that I then revisited the other city descriptions to see what I might learn. The descriptions of the cities seem accurate as well, and include details of their inner workings that would probably be unfathomable to non-locals. At the end of the cities section, the reader will be awakened by the single word "DATA" spanning across two pages in gazillion point type. After that we are treated to some amazing graphics and metrics, giving scale comparisons between densities of cities, populations, and population movements. These displays of quantitative information provide visual signposts for understanding regional differences. While fascinating (and even aesthetically pleasing), I only wish that I could figure out how to take action based on the information within. Perhaps some modern day developer or architect will do just that.
The Endless City closes with another series of essays, this time forward thinking rather than analytical. Again the ghost of Jane makes a visitation or two, popping up in Richard Sennett's passage on the Open City, where he talks about the need for anti-planners to break up the homogeneity that developers pursue. Other essays explore deep issues like the migration of creative talent, the growing political influence of the metropolis and the environmental impact of humanity in large conglomerations. Urban renewal projects are presented afterward and unlike the projects inspired by Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of To-Morrow, these appear largely successful. As a non-planner and non-architect, I find it heartening that these projects all seem to be integrated and gentle, rather than reflective of an urban planner's cookie cutter idea of how "we" are supposed to live. Instead they seem to be environments where there might be room for an "I."
Perhaps The Endless City is like a city-- enormous, deep and complex --while The Death and Life of American Cities is more like a neighborhood -- visceral, immediate and small. Jane Jacobs had one thesis while Burdett and Sudjic seem to have hundreds. If the The Endless City could be abridged into any one statement, it is this: The coming of the urban age is inevitable; we cannot control it, but we may be able to understand and shape how it develops and grows.
In some ways, the earlier work of Jacobs seems to have shaped and birthed this one. Both books have their charms, and each is worth a visit for anyone curious about urban planning or architecture. That said, readers looking for a rewarding and eye-opening stroll should look to Jacobs' neighborhoods, but those who desire the levers to change the world might be well served venturing to the city.
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